The decades-old Del Ray restaurant continually reinvents itself.
★ ★ ☆ ☆
Del Ray’s adult night spot slides between laid-back and buttoned up, comforting and dazzling.
The chef’s forged mushrooms, watermelon poke, toasted milk angel hair.
A vegetarian-ish neighbor was recently bellyaching about pasta. It’s a common complaint; she was bored of this ubiquitous carbohydrate as the solo meatless entree on menus.
There’s another problem with pasta at restaurants: It’s absurdly expensive considering it’s made, usually, from little more than flour and eggs, and it’s one of the cheapest dishes to make at home.
Going out to eat is not, for the most part, a money-saving endeavor. It’s about letting someone else cook, it’s about seeing how someone trained in culinary arts can turn flour and eggs into a moment worth $19.
It was about seven years ago when third-generation chef Jonathan Till first played with milk powder as he plotted a recipe for brown butter ice cream.
Now, as the new executive chef of Evening Star Cafe, he returned to the tenets of dried milk and toasting it to, as Till says, “bring caramelization to the pasta.” He combined the toasted milk powder with a high-protein flour (the more gluten, the more bite) to create long, silky, chewy strands. They’re glossed with vegetable stock and melted butter and circled to create a bird’s nest with a coddled egg in the center. Fava beans, sugar snap peas and asparagus dig into the weave of noodles.
“When vegetarians come to the restaurant, I want to give them something cool,” says Till. It’s not just for the veg heads, of course, it’s a subtly gorgeous dish with the snap and freshness of spring’s first greens and the timeless comfort of slinky noodles.
Till joined the Del Ray restaurant, a neighborhood institution for more than 20 years, last fall after he spent the first part of his summer cooking in Europe and the latter half ducking into the woods and off-the-beaten-track trails hunting for mushrooms. Because he works Sunday brunch through dinner, he misses the Mycological Association of Washington, DC’s meetups. But that’s OK; he doesn’t want anyone to find his secret spots.
Instead, he says, when the kitchen crew grabs a drink after service, Till drives 30 miles to forage for morels and chanterelles. He grows oyster mushrooms on logs behind the restaurant. Last month, maitake, black trumpet and brown beech mushrooms, including the 100 pounds of mushrooms Till preserved from his summer escapades snooping around decaying trees, snuggle into a coating of tangy, creamy farm cheese on an oiled, griddled slab of bread for a wild mushroom bruschetta. Like the pasta, it’s a dish that reveals a generosity to the guest: a simple few ingredients assembled well, a dish greater than its parts.
Not just fueling the craze, Till flirts with his Hawaiian heritage (he lived there as a child and again as a young adult) through watermelon poke.
The bright pink, ahi tuna-hued squares play mind games, looking like poke but dressed in a Sriracha-soy mixture with shaved cucumber, ribbons of wakame, peanuts and pickled watermelon rind. Unlike the lush sensation of raw fish, the melon brings a tingly pop pushing the dish far from its understated roots.
Tender little gem leaves take well to a charring, coated in a ramp green goddess dressing. Like always, crunchy little bread crumb specs are everything. Burrata is burrata, a ball delivering the promise of oozy, creamy cheese, this time plated with salt-packed carrots quick-roasted (15 minutes in 400 degrees) for spears of orange more crunchy than not and a mush of peas. It’s a safe dish, a requisite dish on modern American menus.
The menu features current “it” items: fried cauliflower, burrata, a burger with bacon and pimento. It’s a well-seasoned patty on a cushy brioche bun, though the best part might be the fact it stacks crunchy slabs of smoked pig and a layer of what is essentially grated cheese, and the whole situation stays together with each passing bite. A feat most pub-style burgers can’t claim. (The fries, though, were soggy and lacked salt.)
The label on the salmon, Sixty South, refers to the sustainable farm where the fish grow in Chilean waters near Antarctica. The dish is tidy, taut skin decorated in fat salt crystals covering tender salmon flesh with roasty carrots and enoki mushroom whose meaty, stringy tentacles are a wonder of the natural world.
Though it looked drab in shades of brown, the sticky toffee pudding is a worthy last bite: Toffee sauce slathered over a mound of warming-spice date cake is old-fashioned comfort in a spoon.
Till runs the restaurant’s rooftop garden, working with Monticello’s farm manager to plant seeds suited for Virginia’s climate: purple snap peas, baby turnips, stinging nettle, lettuces, tomatoes. He’ll put up shelling beans for the desolate winter: Till knows the long game.
Evening Star changed course many times during its many years on Mount Vernon Avenue. It’s still one of the only places for an adult night out in the family dominated strip, and with Till at the helm for less than a year, it will continue to shape-shift, hopefully further out of the safety of the avenue, and into the wild of the woods. // Evening Star Cafe: 2000 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; open daily for dinner, and brunch on the weekend; small plates are $5-$12, entrees are $14-$26